TAMPA — Changing the quarterback was easy. The hard part was getting the quarterback to want to change himself.
Jameis Winston knew this going into Sunday's 27-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers. He thought a lot about it during the three weeks he was on the bench, watching another man do his job.
He was so thankful to be back on the field with his teammates, during Thanksgiving week no less, he vowed to keep everything simple when he returned.
No more trying to put up the video game passing numbers like Ryan Fitzpatrick. No more turning down open receivers in front of him for the lure of the home-run ball into coverage. If nothing was there, Winston promised to tuck it and run, keeping both hands on the ball.
If he couldn't find a safe escape route, he would even take a sack like he did Sunday and live to play another down.
"I just went out there and did my best to execute," Winston said. "Not overlook open guys, extend plays only when I needed to. Simple things like that."
The result was Winston playing one of the most solid games of his career. He went 29 of 38 passing for 312 yards with two touchdowns —and most importantly, no interceptions or fumbles.
From that approach, all the good things that had been missing during the Bucs' four-game losing streak suddenly blossomed.
The Bucs built their first lead since an Oct. 21 win over Cleveland. The defense produced a turnover — interceptions by Ryan Smith and Isaiah Johnson. The pass rush, buoyed by a lead, relentlessly pressured 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens, sacking him four times and hitting him nine other occasions. First-round pick Vita Vea came to life with his first career sack and three tackles for a loss after a sit-down in the past week with general manager Jason Licht.
Cairo Santos made all his kicks, two field goals and three extra points.
But at the center of it was Winston.
Remember, since he started playing the game at age 4, he had never been benched for anything other than disciplinary reasons.
The three-game suspension by the NFL to start the season was one thing. But it may have taken being told he wasn't good enough to make him realize he actually is — if he would just stop playing so recklessly.
"I'm not sure what it took, but he did it,'' coach Dirk Koetter said. "That's all that matters. Jameis, he played quarterback the way you really need to play it in the NFL until you get into desperation time, which we never did today. So Jameis wasn't perfect, but he played a damn good game. I'm proud of him. It's been a difficult road. He sees what that looks like and he needs to consistently play like that and he can be one of the best.''
By improving to 4-7, the Bucs are still a month of winning away from becoming relevant. This wasn't a bold move by Koetter to turn back to Winston. He was out of options after Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions and was benched in the second half of last week's 38-35 loss to the Giants.
Winston admitted he couldn't wait to top Fitzpatrick when he regained his job the first time this season.
"I think it was more of trying to prove to everyone what I'm capable of,'' Winston said. "Ryan has been in the game for a long time, so I want to chase his years, definitely. Hopefully, I can be in this league for 14 years. But I think as any player, you've always got to be yourself. …
"Chase the man in the mirror and compete against him every day.''
Really, the best football Winston has played for the Bucs looked very similar to the way he performed Sunday. It happened in 2016 when he led his team to five straight wins.
At the center of the revival Sunday was receiver Mike Evans, Winston's favorite target. Evans caught six passes for 116 yards. His first catch Sunday set the tone. On third down, he beat 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman off the line and got behind him quickly. Winston delivered a perfect 42-yard strike.
Three plays later, Winston scrambled to his right and hit tight end Cameron Brate in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown pass. Winston's other TD pass came on a play he extended by escaping the rush and throwing back across his body to Adam Humphries, who turned it into a 28-yard score.
"He was wide open,'' Winston said of Humphries. "It was a decisive decision. When you're decisive with the ball, there's no thinking about it. Just trust your instincts, make the throw. And he made some (yards) after the catch. I'm happy he did that.''
Brate said he and Winston had a conversation during the game about how much it felt like 2016.
"It's what we were saying. It was like such a 2016 Bucs game,'' Brate said. "Mike gets like 120 (yards), me and Hump get the touchdowns. It was like a flashback there. It won us games and we sprinkled in D-Jack (DeSean Jackson) and Chris (Godwin) as well. This is what our offense is capable of, it's just whether we do it every week.''
Of course, that's always been the challenge with Winston. And let's not kid ourselves. The 49ers are a 2-9 team that had to travel from the West Coast and play its third-string quarterback while their best defensive player, Rueben Foster, was released by the team after he was arrested Saturday night in Tampa on charges of domestic battery.
It gets much tougher, with games against the Panthers, Saints and at Baltimore looming.
Watching the deep calm that Winston displayed Sunday makes you wonder: where has this guy been?
More importantly, can he repeat this type of performance the next five weeks?
"That's going to continue to be the approach,'' Winston said. "Again, I don't have anything to prove to anyone. What we've got to do is win, and the easiest way to win is to keep everything simple and not beat yourself."
So for one game, at least, the real change at quarterback came from within.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud